Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell has already gotten an early taste of playoff intensity, thanks to the Trail Blazers
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune)
Utah Jazz vs. Boston Celtics, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City, Wednesday March 28, 2018. Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) shoots.
Donovan Mitchell sat in a cramped Portland locker room late Wednesday, adorned in a sweatshirt with a giant pair of headphones, upset with himself and his performance in a game that meant so much to the Jazz.
The Trail Blazers had guarded Mitchell as if their lives depended on it. They pushed and shoved him around screens. They limited his space in pick-and-rolls. They made sure to contest his jumper. They put bodies between him and the rim at all times. And Mitchell wasn’t ready for it.
As Utah prepares for Game 1 of its Western Conference first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, one of the biggest questions surrounding the Jazz is how the kid from Louisville will respond to playoff intensity. In that sense, Wednesday’s loss — in which he shot 6 of 23 from the field — was the perfect warmup for Mitchell, who knows Oklahoma City will try to take him out of the series in similar fashion as Portland did.
“I didn’t respond well,” Mitchell said. “I’m upset with myself for that. But I’m over it, and I have to realize that this is how it’s going to be. This was my first test. I think it was better to have it in game 82 than to have it in game one or two of the playoffs.”
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, center, drives to the basket on Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic, right, as guard CJ McCollum, left, watches during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, April 11, 2018. The Blazers won 102-93. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
A significant portion of Utah’s success in the series will hinge on Mitchell’s ability to break down OKC’s defense, get into the lane and create for his teammates.
Mitchell said he was planning to dive into film study ahead of Sunday’s Game 1. He looks at the Blazers loss and the impending Thunder series as another challenge for him to accept.
“I knew it would be more difficult,” Mitchell said. “When I played in summer league, I was like, ‘this the NBA?’ Training camp came and preseason came and I adjusted. Then, the season started and that’s when it became difficult. It took me time to catch up. The biggest thing for me going into the playoffs is staying as relaxed as possible. I don’t want to be sped up. I want to stay even-keeled, so the preparation is probably going to be the biggest thing.”
Against the Thunder, Mitchell knows he will face a team with the ability to study him over a long stretch during off days. Oklahoma City is expected to guard him initially with Corey Brewer, who’s long been known as a defensive specialist. But with Brewer dealing with a sprained knee, Paul George — one of the premier wing defenders in the league — will guard Mitchell for long stretches, as well as Russell Westbrook.
How Mitchell adjusts to that attention will go a long way toward determining Utah’s fate in the series. And how his teammates support him will play a factor as well.
If Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio are shooting well, Mitchell will have more space to operate. If Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are cleaning up inside, Oklahoma City can’t commit as much help to Mitchell from its big men.
“We’re going to do our best to prepare him mentally for what he’s going to face and to have his back,” Gobert said. “But he has to experience it for himself. We think he’s going to be fine. He loves the game. He loves the competition. He’s accepted every challenge this year.”